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"Grand Admiral: Castles of Steel review" Topic

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fenyan Inactive Member30 Apr 2011 1:04 p.m. PST

I wrote this review for the Grand Admiral: Castles of Steel page at boardgamegeek but thought I'd crosspost it here.

Grand Admiral: Castles of Steel by Majestic Twelve games is a naval warfare game covering the fleets of Great Britain vs. Germany in WWI. The game comes as a PDF download with rules, data charts, ship counters and a map, the latter two of which require assembly before use. The game is played on a hexgrid but detailed rules for playing miniatures on a gridless layout are provided.

Several months ago a friend recommended trying out this rules set based on a preview he saw of the movement activation system which is impulse movement done in a clever way. Each turn players draw playing cards from a deck built with cards from two suits, red and black. Each suit of cards has the Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and two face cards. The Ace counts as a "1". Each side is activated by the suit of their chosen color. For example, you can designate spades to activate German ships and hearts for the British.

When a numbered card is played, any ship on that side with a speed equal or greater to that number may move (but is not forced to). So, a fast destroyer will get to move one space or make one turn on any numbered card played, whereas the British battleship Barham will move only on an Ace, 2, 3, or 4 card.

When a face card is drawn, all ships of that side may fire.

The key is that players draw from a single combined deck (shuffled every turn) so you will draw cards for your own fleet as well as your opponent's. This allows you to determine the timing of certain movement and fire cards. My first reaction upon reading this rule was that each side should control their own deck of cards. However, naval combat in this era has many examples of error and miscommunication which caused plans to go awry. This card activation mechanism, in play, captures the uncertainty of WWI naval combat quite well.

The rules are approximately nine pages in a large font with illustrations, and are quick to explain. The ships have points assigned to them, from the 2-point Acasta-class destroyers to the 46-point Queen Elizabeth class battleships. We decided to have a 200-point battle.

My opponent had the Germans and chose battleships Frederich der Grosse and Kaiser, battlecruisers Moltke and Seydlitz, cruisers Elbing and Pillau, and two half-flotillas consisting of five and four destroyers respectively. He basically chose a balanced approach.

I on the other hand chose four of the latest British battleships at the time: Barham, Malaya, Valiant and Warspite. To round out the 16 remaining points I chose the cruiser Warrior.

My opening hand of three cards had no fire cards. My opponent played one of my fire cards early (wasting it) but I was able to take a shot towards the end of the turn and sink a few destroyers that were ahead of his main line.

Instead of turning to maintain the range (to go parallel with his line) I closed in and had to spend some time fending off the oncoming destroyers. Meanwhile the capital ships traded salvos.

The Seydlitz for example rolls 14 six-sided dice for its main guns. At a range of 1-3 (short range) it needs 5's or 6's to hit. At a range of 4-5 (long range) it needs 6's to hit. If it hits, a target number is determined. This is the penetration value minus the armor. Seydlitz at range 3 has a penetration rating of 3. Subtracted from the Barham's belt armor of 8 this gives a target number of 5. The Seydlitz player takes a number of dice equal to the hits, and would need to roll 5 or better to do damage. The Barham has 11 hull boxes so it would require several good salvos from Seydlitz to sink her.

It is very interesting how the designer simplified the armor ratings. Each ship has just two ratings, Belt and End. Belt armor is used when the ship's broadside is the target, End armor is used when the ship is shot at from the front or back. This makes a lot of sense as more of the ship's weaker spots are exposed in the latter case. This also makes trying to cross your opponent's "T" all the more inviting. During movement this armor rating system as well as the card-movement activation system makes for a lot of challenging decisions. This is quite refreshing compared to a lot of other staid naval line-up-and-shoot games.

Our first game ended with the British using consecutive fire cards to cripple then sink my fleet. The destroyers played out historically, if allowed to close in to torpedo range they were dangerous. One flotilla unleashed 18 torpedoes and three or four hit. Torpedoes are simple, just roll a 6 to cause a point of damage (no penetration roll required).

The second game was a lot closer after I had learned my lessons. I swapped out the cruiser for eight destroyers and I also set up a bit farther out. I intended to use the Queen Elizabeth class range advantage. The distance would also negate some of the battlecruiser firepower.

At long range I began picking off more his destroyers. As we closed to three-hex range, I turned the fleet to maintain the distance. I was also able to get in a couple of turns of shooting at his End armor.

As his destroyers closed in, mine fought back and basically the destroyers got only a few torpedo shots in at the capital ships this game. At the end the British prevailed with Warspite still at full strength and Valiant crippled but still afloat.

As with most games, this game was bloodier than any historical combat probably would have been. This of course is due to players have quite a bit more control than their historical counterparts (and a lot less accountability). For those wanting more history there is a fleet morale rule in the game. Or, as my opponent suggested, you could put in one fire card for each side (instead of two) and it would be more history (a lot more chasing around) but less of a game.

We are considering only one house rule at this point and that is to not allow two consecutive fire cards to be played by the same player. We found this effect (which happened in both games) to be quite devastating to the other side. However this is only a minor quibble.

Also, only one scenario is available, Dogger Bank. So, if you are wanting to play historical scenarios you'll need to make up your own at this time. I can see us playing Jutland with these rules, though I might opt for their non-buckets of dice option they provide. There are several generic scenarios as well as a campaign system.

Each game lasted about an hour and unlike a lot of other rules that claim to be, this was a fast play game. The designer has already published a fullly detailed WWI naval rules set, Grand Fleets. Grand Admiral is a distillation of those rules to the most basic elements and successfully captures the flavor of WWI naval warfare.

My opponent remarked that Grand Admiral was "Axis and Allies: War at Sea" done right. Both games are played on large hexes (albeit different eras) but Grand Admiral wins out in our opinion due to its movement system which allows players to make interesting tactical decisions.

Space Ghost Supporting Member of TMP01 May 2011 12:41 p.m. PST

Nice review, thank you. Do the rules have any kind of critical damage? Do ships loose capability (firepower, speed) as they take damage? Do the campaign rules include any kind of search rules, strategic movement?


fenyan Inactive Member02 May 2011 11:06 a.m. PST

There are no critical hits. There are two rows of hull boxes, after the first row is marked off (looks like about 60% damage) then you use the crippled stats--approximately half speed, half gunnery dice, halve your remaining torpedoes.

The campaign rules are more of a tournament-style system where you build a fleet and receive replenishment points after each game. For a campaign I would probably use the Avalon Hill Jutland strategic rules and then implement the battle using Grand Admiral.

Overall the rules are very basic but you can easily add chrome.

CorporalTrim Inactive Member03 May 2011 3:41 p.m. PST


Nice report, thanks for posting. The rules sound interesting, particularly the randomness of drawing cards for the initiative. Would you say that might make the system somewhat suitable for solitaire play, at least for learning the ropes ?

So far as the "end vs. belt" armor as it relates to Crossing the T is concerned, I've understood the advantage to lie more in bringing all guns to bear against the enemy as compared to his line being limited to what can be trained from the bow or stern (and his fire to some degree masked by the lead or trailing ships and their funnel smoke).

I don't dispute a reduction in armor thickness at the bow/stern compared to amidships. But on the other hand, the critical points such as the turrets, barbettes and conning tower would present the same ability to resist penetration regardless of the angle of fire. Perhaps the armor rules are presented that way in the interest of encouraging more maneuver as oppposed to parallel lines of battle just slugging it out. In any case, I make no claims to be an expert in naval architecture. ;-)


mj12games Inactive Member04 May 2011 11:32 a.m. PST

Thanks for the kind review. One thing I'd like to highlight is the fact that the ability to fire twice consecutively was intentionally left in…

If you look at the card-play process as spanning two "traditional" game turns, it's no different than one side losing "initiative" in one turn, thus firing second, then winning initiative in the next, firing first. Granted, the chance for movement between the two firing opportunities is limited in the GA system, but if you're going to use cards, there will be situations when those cards fall your way. :)

Anyway, that's some of the thinking behind it.

Whiteylegs05 May 2011 1:49 a.m. PST

We have been experimenting with some house rules of our own for GA to introduce a very simple approach to critical hits. These add a little to complexity but add a dimension of fun as well.

What we do is this:
1. Divide the gun factors of ships that are AC or larger by the number of turrets and round to the nearest whole number. This gives you a ratio of attack dice to turrets.
2. When a penetrating hit is scored on a ship during a salvo, roll 1d10.
3. If a 10 is rolled, this means a critical hit was scored on the target vessel. For each extra penetrating hit scored on a ship from one salvo, we add a +1 drm to the CH roll.
4. If the ship is a BB or German BC, 1 turret is destroyed and the gun dice are reduced by the appropriate number.
5. If the ship is a British BC or ship of a lesser type, another 1d10 isrolled. If the result is a 10, the ship blows up. If not, a turret is destroyed as above.
6. When a ship is crippled, halve the remaining turrets to reflect the new damage state.

These rules allow us to simulate the fragility of battlecruisers in WWI, while also giving a more random reduction of fire power by knocking out turrets. While we have not tried this for a large battle, it has proved a fun addition to the rules for battles of about 8 ships a side.

We roll the d10 when we roll for the penetrating hits. 1d10 if the target is a BB, and 2 different coloured d10 if target is AC or BC. The first indicates the CH (or not) and the second if it is a magazine or turret hit. This speeds play. Please try them and let me know what you think!


fenyan Inactive Member05 May 2011 3:12 p.m. PST

@Steve: the card activation system would help solitaire play, but of course the more players the more to move the ships with :) As for your assessment of the armor yes you are right on: the turrets etc. has just as much armor from any angle. The end of course has less belt and perhaps just as much "deck" exposed? Of course it's a great mechanic for getting layers to move.

@mj12: thanks for the explanation, we've not played enough to totally go against the rules as written!

@Ando: thanks for the idea, we were thinking of 1d6 = 6 after any hit for an explosion for the British BCs.

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